By Dan Epstein
August 10, 2011
While doing the research for Big Hair & Plastic Grass, I combed through hundreds of books and periodicals from the era, but one book somehow eluded me — Bob Adelman and Susan Hall's Out Of Left Field: Willie Stargell and the Pittsburgh Pirates. Long out of print, I recently found a used hardcover copy of the 1976 first edition via Amazon; and while there isn't much in there that would have appreciably changed the content of my book, it is a really fascinating read, and one I highly recommend to fans of the era, if you can find it.
Adelman and Hall had the sort of access to Stargell and the Pirates that you would never imagine today, especially considering that they were working on an "unauthorized" book. They followed the team for the entire '73 season, a tumultuous and frustrating campaign that saw the Bucs struggling to adjust to the sudden loss of their leader, Roberto Clemente, and to the equally sudden meltdown of former ace Steve Blass. Manager Bill Virdon was eventually fired with a month left to go in the season, but all new/old manager Danny Murtaugh could coax out of the team was a .500 September and a disappointing third-place finish behind the Mets and the Cardinals.
Out of Left Field paints a surprisingly intimate portrait of this lost season, with many of the players (Stargell, Richie Zisk, Manny Sanguillen, Richie Hebner, Al Oliver, Dock Ellis) offering surprisingly frank assessments of their lives and their team that go well beyond the usual clichés and platitudes. While Adelman and Hall offer little in the way of historical context, and many of their photos are frustratingly un-captioned — and if my lack of SABR-style number-crunching in BH&PG pissed you off, you're really gonna hate this book — they do a great job of getting out of the way and let the players tell their story.
The book includes groupie tales and other snapshots of life on the road, as well as an ongoing discussion of racism, both in the game and within the context of the team. Most interesting to me is the assertion from several players that racism played a role in the team's attempted move of Sanguillen — a highly respected catcher — to right field in the wake of Clemente's death. The black and Latin players interviewed, for the most part, seem to think that the move was motivated by the front office's desire to add more white players to the lineup: therefore, instead of putting the speedy Gene Clines in right field, Pirates management put Sangy out there and brought (the white) Milt May in to catch, because white Pittsburgh fans aren't down with a mostly-minority lineup. Management, of course, denies that this is remotely the case... but eventually, Sangy's ineptitude in right (and his potent bat) will help him reclaim his rightful position behind the plate. Even so, Clines will lose the right field position to a young Polish slugger named Richie Zisk...
Of course, Bob Adelman's photos tell a story all their own. The book contains over a hundred beautiful black and white shots of the players on and off the field, and I've scanned a few of my favorites:
Here's pitcher Nelson Briles, who led the team's starters that year with 14 victories and a 2.85 ERA — and who talks in the book about pursuing a full-time entertainment career once his playing days are over — working on a song in the clubhouse.
Here's Al Oliver and his wife, lookin' fly and preparing for a night on the town.
Here's Dock Ellis, lookin' cool as he heckles an umpire from the dugout.
Here's Pops himself, gettin' down with some funky friends during a party at his house.
And my personal favorite: A fantastic Dock-in-curlers shot that I'd never seen before...
Somewhat controversial in its day — "Passages about some team-mates might make Ball Four read like a nursery rhyme," commented the New York Times at the time — Out of Left Field isn't so shocking now, but it is a beautifully-observed time capsule from a complex era. It would be lovely to see it come back into print again.